City Licenses and Inspections forces scrapyard that caught fire to shut down again

The incident was hardly a surprise for many neighborhood residents, who have long been annoyed with the scrapyard’s presence in the community.

Philadelphia Metal and Resource Recovery. Photo submitted by Jamie Moffett.

Update: Since the Cease Operations Order was issued, Guss said that inspectors have observed the scrapyard complying with the order and turning customers away. Residents have reported to the Star that they’ve seen the scrap yard appearing to operate since the order was issued. However, according to Guss, the scrap yard is allowed to have its gates open to allow people inside to clean up and fix the violations, which is likely what residents observed.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Metal and Resource Recovery, a scrapyard at 2200 E. Somerset St. in Port Richmond caught fire, ultimately becoming a four-alarm emergency on a warm Tuesday night. The scrapyard reopened shortly after the fire. As of approximately 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, the scrapyard was issued a cease operations order, according to Karen Guss, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection. Guss said the scrapyard will remain closed until the property owner reduces the piles of scrap in his yard to no more than the legal limit of 10 feet and allows for safe access for the fire department. These issues stem from prior violations the scrapyard and its owner have had in the past.

“He’s had quite a long time to get it done,” said Guss.

A copy of the cease operations poster provided by Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The fire was hardly a surprise for many neighborhood residents, who have long been annoyed with the scrapyard’s presence in the community.

“Over the years we have received numerous complaints from various residents regarding the operation of the scrapyard that caught on fire,” said Sean McMonagle, spokesperson for Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla. “Most, if not all, of the complaints were for the general upkeep of the property/piles of recyclables or for odors from tire cutting.”

McMonagle said that Squilla had visited the facility to speak with the owner about the neighbors’ complaints.

“The initial response from the owner was positive,” McMonagle said via email. “He even removed all of his tractor trailers from the surrounding neighborhood streets, but as time went on they slipped back in to business as usual.”

After the fire happened, the scrapyard closed. As of Thursday of last week, it had reopened.

“I’m upset to see that it was reopened,” said Port Richmond resident Rebekah Wilcox. “I was livid that day. I bought this house here two years ago, and I thought it was an up and coming neighborhood. I’m annoyed that they have all these violations against them and the city has done nothing to shut them down. If they were a legit business it wouldn’t bother me but it doesn’t look like they are.”

Wilcox, who lives four blocks from the junkyard, said that during and immediately after the fire, her house smelled like burning rubber, and it was difficult to breathe. She said her car and garden have been caked in “black sticky dots dropped by the junkyard fire.” She took her car to the car wash and drove it in the rain, but the dots are still there.

“This is my 20th year living or working in Kensington and the scrapyard, for as long as I can remember, didn’t appear as though as it had been following the rules as I understand them,” said area resident and community activist Jamie Moffett. “The level of dust and materials it was picking up in the air — it never seemed safe.”

Moffett said the dust was “thick as mud” and said it would often illicit “a metallic taste” as you walked or drove by.

“To put neighbors in harm’s way for all those years was rather frustrating,” he said.

Apart from being regarded as a neighborhood blight, the scrapyard has received 72 violations since 2007, according to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. The violations include citations for tire storage, marking of containers and disposal of oily waste. A press release from New Kensington Community Development Corporation called the fire code violations “egregious.”

According to the press release, the owner of 2200 E. Somerset St “was given three months, with no fine, to comply with various egregious fire code violations, including not having a ‘hot work’ permit, possessing unidentified containers of hazardous materials, possessing unsecured compressed gas containers, accumulation of material in a prohibited area, storage of combustible material exceeding fire code limitations, using extension cords as a substitute for permanent wiring, lacking one or more required portable fire extinguishers, possessing prohibited heating and cooking equipment, possessing open junction boxes, possessing an improperly labeled oil storage container, and possessing waste tire piles that were both too large and too close to structures.”

“What [Licenses and Inspections] will do in this situation is they will investigate the fire and then retroactively issue a bunch of violations because they can’t fine the yard for having a fire, but they can fine them for the things that led up to it,” said Russell Zerbo, advocacy coordinator for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council. “The sort of absurd thing about the situation is that the scrapyard already has all these violations that could have possibly led to the fire. So it may turn out that L and I just gives them all the same violations again, which I think speaks to the lack of enforcement in this situation.”

NKCDC has been working with community members “to address health and safety issues caused by noncompliant area scrapyards since 2013,” the press release said. “By encouraging neighbors to report violations, advocating with the city for improved regulation, and acting as a liaison for neighborhood concerns, NKCDC hoped to give scrapyard operators the tools they needed to be better neighbors and act as responsible community members.”

Zerbo said the air quality during the time of the fire was “off the charts.” The council has a barometer it uses to measure air quality in which there are six levels of increasingly more dangerous, color-coded categories of air pollution. The measurements are in micrograms per meter cubed (µg/m3), which is essentially a measurement of the amount of how much solid stuff there is in a cube of air.

“So if you think of a cube of air, it’s measuring how much solid matter that’s below a certain size is in that air,” Zerbo said.

The categories are as follows:

Good (Green): 0–50 µg/m3
Moderate (Yellow): 51–100 µg/m3
Warning (Orange): 101–150 µg/m3
Unhealthy (Red): 151–200 µg/m3
Very Unhealthy (Purple): 201–300 µg/m3
Hazardous (Burgundy): 301–400 µg/m3

So the scale goes up to 400 µg/m3, which is the Clean Air Council considers “hazardous.” At the peak of the fire, the air quality was more than 3.5 times that amount, clocking in as high as 1,457 µg/m3 during the height of the fire, according to one of the Clean Air Council’s air monitors, which is located across the street from the scrapyard.

“So that’s what we mean when we say off the chart,” Zerbo said. “There’s no other color to progress to.”

Breathing air as polluted as the air was in Port Richmond on the night of the scrapyard fire could cause issues related the body’s respiratory system, asthma and heart disease, officials said.

“New research came out over the summer that was linking diabetes to air pollution,” Zerbo said. “There’s research that says particulate matter pollution can lower IQ. … It’s a long list that keeps on growing. There are various skin diseases that are attributed to particulate matter pollution.”

Zerbo said that in his experience, the city currently has a “sort of informal system” where scrapyards that get fines essentially get six months or more time to clean up after receiving violations.

“In my experience, if you get a violation from L and I and then refuse to pay it or even acknowledge it, the city turns it over to the law department, which then gives you a court date. So that process takes about three or four months and in most cases, [and then] — and this happened with the yard that caught on fire — at your first court date, the judge will levy no fine and give you another three months to comply with the violation. So that’s a good six months after L and I inspected your property, that you’re just kind of off, you know?”

Zerbo said he’d like to find a way to not allow scrapyards so much time to fix violations. He’d also like to see the scrapyards get fined at their initial court date.

David Feinberg, the scrapyard’s owner, told The Star he believes fire was started by “one of the homeless or heroin addicts who live behind the yard.” He believes they “set the fire intentionally.”

Feinberg said his belief is based on “a lot of circumstantial evidence,” including markings on his fence. He also said that one of the scrapyard’s guards said he heard people talking on the other side of the fence.

Can residents be sure such an incident won’t ever happen again?

“There is no certainty in life,” said Feinberg. However, “the residents can be sure that we’re taking every precaution imaginable to make sure something like this never happens again.”

After the Cease Operations Order was issued, The Star called Feinberg back in an effort to discuss the Cease Operations Order, but Feinberg refused to comment on the order.